Chasing a world record: Penn State student does 50-hour wheelchair wheelie

crosenbl@centredaily.comJune 11, 2014 

— Around Ross Holland, the crowd counted down the final seconds.

When they reached zero, he was finally free.

He lowered the front wheels of his wheelchair, with a thunk, to the floor of a platform, ending his marathon stunt to cheers and applause — and possibly setting a world record.

Holland, a 23-year-old Penn State senior and double amputee, held a wheelie for 50 straight hours with little nourishment and no sleep on the food court level of the HUB-Robeson Center.

By the time he finished at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, he already had shattered the old mark — eons ago. The previous record-holder stayed aloft a relatively paltry 10 hours.

Guinness World Records needs to make it official after reviewing video footage that Onward State, a Penn State student-run news blog, produced for verification purposes and a documentary about Holland’s effort.

But when he touched down to smiles and congratulations, Holland was already a world champion in the eyes of friends and well-wishers around him.

“My pipe-dream goal was 72 hours, but I don’t have enough gas in the tank to get there,” he said around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“It’s not physically worth it. Fifty hours have been a delight. I don’t think I have enough for another night.”

What makes a man balance on his back wheels while forgoing sleep over the span of three days?

A younger brother, that’s what. Holland and his sibling, Quinn, were talking about wheelchair wheelies. Because wheelies don’t require a lot of effort to execute, contrary to appearances, they wondered how long he could hold one.

Just for fun, they looked up the world record. It got them thinking. Ten hours: Holland could beat that, no sweat.

“We decided, as long as I could stay conscious, I could stay up,” Holland said.

At the age of 3, he lost both his legs below the knees — and nearly his life — in an accident on the family farm in Littlestown, near Gettysburg. He ran behind his mother, out of her view as she backed up on a lawnmower. After he slipped and fell, the mower ran over his lower legs.

For the wheelie challenge, he chose the HUB because Guinness requires public places for setting records.

He then approached Onward State to verify his feat. Jack Lukow, Onward State’s visual editor, began filming Holland when he began at 1:45 p.m. Monday, keeping him company for most of the time.

“I’ve got a large amount of footage to pull together,” Lukow said.

Once he passed the 10-hour mark, Holland said, he continued out of curiosity.

“I wanted to go for as long as I could physically go,” he said.

Except for a handful of crackers and a couple of curly fries, he refrained from food to avoid nature’s call. To stay awake, the key to the whole deal, he downed a few 5-hour energy drinks, a cup of coffee and a little water.

When his bladder began protesting, he waited until the HUB was deserted overnight before resorting to a creative solution involving a tube up his shorts leg.

Never was he in danger of drifting off enough to lose his balance, he said. But there were close moments — like early Wednesday.

“This morning was bad,” he said, hours before ending. “That’s why we decided to stop at 50. ... I was definitely loopy.”

During the days, onlookers helped him keep alert by asking questions and offering encouragement. Conversations with friends, including an old pal from his years at the Mont Alto campus before coming to University Park, energized him.

The toughest times came at night when no one was around.

“If I’m not sitting and talking to somebody, time really crawls,” Holland said.

His right hand, which he uses mostly for balancing, also came close to cramping from holding a wheel in place.

But through it all, the wheels remained aloft. At one point, he and Lukow resorted to tossing a Frisbee to stave off fatigue.

Holland drew plenty of admirers — such as Jeff Ruffing, of Plum, visiting the campus this week for a new student orientation with his son.

Ruffing first saw Holland on Tuesday morning before returning Wednesday to take a photo and wish Holland well.

“I looked through the (HUB) window, and there he was. I said, ‘Good job,’ ” Ruffing said. “I didn’t expect to see him here (Wednesday). God bless him, he’s doing great.”

On Tuesday, Holland got a surprise visit from Allison Goodhart, a recent high school graduate from Carlisle at Penn State for the FFA state convention. A car accident when she was almost 2 paralyzed her below the waist.

As a show of solidarity, she held her wheelchair in a wheelie for 90 minutes. For Holland’s final stretch, she returned and balanced with him for more than an hour.

“I told him I’d come back,” she said. “I wanted to see the end. The fact that he stayed up to do this for 50 hours is incredible.”

And then came his release.

A local radio station and TV station set up to capture the finale. Lion Ambassadors, on break from campus tours, gathered in support.

With a minute to go, someone asked Holland how he felt.

“Give me a minute,” he said. “I can’t remember.”

After his front wheels hit the platform, he leaned forward, arms finally free to drape in his lap, grinning up a storm despite a blister on his right hand.

A long slumber awaited the world’s top wheelie man, but for the moment, his eyes shining, he looked as though he could go another 50 hours.

“Relief,” he said about his emotions. “I’m really glad to not sit in one place any more.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter at @CRosenblumNews.

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